1141. England is engulfed in war as King Stephen and his cousin, the Empress Matilda, vie for the crown. In this dangerous world, not even Emma, an eleven-year-old peasant, is safe. A depraved monk obsessed with redheads kidnaps the ginger-haired girl from her village and leaves her for dead. When an archer for hire named Gwyl finds her, she has no memory of her previous life. Unable to abandon her, Gwyl takes the girl with him, dressing her as a boy, giving her a new name—Penda—and teaching her to use a bow. But Gwyn knows that the man who hurt Penda roams free, and that a scrap of evidence she possesses could be very valuable.
The pair make their way to Kenniford, a small but strategically important fortress that belongs to fifteen-year-old Maud. Newly wedded to a boorish and much older husband after her father’s death, the fierce and determined young chatelaine tempts fate and Stephen’s murderous wrath when she gives shelter to the empress.
Aided by a garrison of mercenaries, including Gwyl and his odd red-headed apprentice, Maud will stave off Stephen’s siege for a long, brutal winter that will bring a host of visitors to Kenniford—kings, soldiers . . . and a sinister monk with deadly business to finish.
I don’t think it’s any secret that when I heard that Diana Norman had passed away, I was crestfallen. In fact, Keishon and I swapped wailing emails about it. This was followed by the bittersweet news, so described because I had no idea if it would ever see the light of day, that she had left an unfinished manuscript. Then, Hallelujah!, came the news that Mrs. Norman’s daughter Samantha was picking up the reins and determined to finish the book. With trepidation and much impatience I waited for the finished product only to discover that it was to be published in the UK in 2014 and that we USians were supposed to wait a few months later. Screw that – Amazon.co. uk delivers worldwide.
When the package arrived, I pounced on it and then did a happy dance. “Winter Siege” or “The Siege Winter” as it’s to be titled in the US was mine! Now, was I going to be smiling through my tears as I read it or would I be a grumpy cat?
The book is set in familiar Diana Norman territory taking place during the years long dispute between William the Conqueror’s granddaughter Matilda and her cousin Stephen over who would rule England. Dispute makes it sound almost cordial though from everything I’ve read about it the reality was far from that. Armies led by the opposing royals rampaged across the country while others took the chance offered in those relatively lawless times to settle old scores, make land grabs and, due to inattention, allow justice to be trampled.
POTENTIAL TRIGGER EVENT
One of the early victims in the book is young Emma. Her fate is initially hinted at by the state in which mercenary Gwil finds her. Later there is more detail after Emma regains her memory. Young heiress Maud of Kenniford is the other main female character of the book and though her victimization is not the brutal one Emma survives, she is still forced to do the bidding of others when supporters of Stephen muscle their way into her keep and, with knives to the throats of two of her people, make her agree to marriage with an older, brutish man.
Both Emma, or Penda as she becomes known after she pushes her memory away in self defense, and Maud are survivors. They will do what they have to in order to endure and have as much say in the tumultuous events of their times as possible. Maud has been raised by her hard-as-stone father to lead her people come what may. She might be slightly tyrannical but then most in her class were and she’ll fight like a badger when she or hers are threatened. But she’s also smart, knowing when to retreat and live to fight another day and when it’s in the best interest to change her colors. Don’t judge her – everyone was doing it.
Penda has only vague memories of anything before Gwil finds her and reluctantly takes responsibility for her survival. His anguished conversations with God, and God’s unyielding replies, are early flashes of grim humor that got me through the scenes of Penda refusing to die. When it becomes evident that she’s not going to give in to her injuries, in fact that she’s going to take a few swipes at Gwil along the way if need be, he begins to train her as an archer after she cuts her hair to distance herself from anything female. And slap him sideways in amazement if she doesn’t turn out to be born to it.
Thus it is that two females show us the different levels of social hierarchy of the day. Maud is the one with ostensibly more power while Penda survives on the outskirts of society with Gwil by becoming touring performers. The differing narratives are tied together in the form of a dying Abbot who dictates them to a skeptical scribe – taking down the history of common people? – years later.
One thing I wasn’t expecting to be shown so clearly is the need for a strong, central government. Diana Norman always had the ability to slip these educational moments into her books and this is the one for “Winter Siege.” The lack of someone in charge – a strong someone in charge – could and did lead to miscarriages of justice as Gwil and Penda sadly discover when the mad monk crosses their path again and another innocent pays the price. The rigid social ladder of King down to commoner also gets upended with all these mercenaries running about all over the place. Soulless bastards will sell their allegiance to anyone with the money to buy it instead of tendering it to their overlord as God intended. But the moment Maud sniffed about this in relation to a certain person, I knew how that would end.
Along with 12th century conflicts and strong women, though ones who have to work around the limitations of the day, another oft seen character type in Norman medieval novels is the cunning, evil madman. Yep, got that one here too. I think part of what makes them so frightening is that there is seldom a “reason” given for their actions. They just are evil. Here the character is crossed with another Norman “type” – a clergyman and we’re given a few sly digs at them that would become full blown in Henry II’s day.
As I read the book, I could tell there is a first part A and second part B. The blending is done fairly well but one can sort of sense when the story got picked up and continued. To me it got more sentimental and characters got both more openly emotional and concerned with emotions. It’s not that this is poorly done or a bad thing, it just didn’t quite match up with the way the characters were initially portrayed. I can see change naturally happening with Maud and Penda as they mature but it also seemed to me it occurred with older characters who ought to be more set in their ways.
I figured out the way the story would end and pretty much how it would be done as well as the identity of an unnamed character. I did end with a few questions but not anything that’s a deal breaker. The information contained in the scrap of parchment fitted in with the clashes between the clergy and secular folk which would play out years later in Henry’s reign. Despite the number of books I’ve read that show this, I still find it frightening how little control secular authority had over the Church then.
Like Puccini’s “Turandot” or Borodin’s “Prince Igor,” I’m glad there was someone on hand and invested enough to see to the completion of the book. Samantha Norman does an admirable job finishing the story, especially when one learns that apparently Diana Norman left no outline or notes to follow. My final grade is a bit mixed due to the subtle changes that would have been almost impossible not to occur but which I still lament and a few unfinished questions I had. Still, it’s a wonderful effort and a book not to be missed. A/B